The Sony NEX-5N adds a high-spec 16.1MP sensor to the NEX-series. Can Sony retain its Compact System Camera image quality crown? The What Digital Camera Sony NEX-5N review...
Sony NEX-5N review – Features
Small in size, yet big on features, the 5N builds upon its NEX-5 little brother with a new 16.1MP sensor, the likes of which you can expect to find in the Pentax K-5 or Nikon D7000 DSLR systems. For under £600 that alone sounds like a snip, but Sony has packed plenty more into the 5N.
Compact System Cameras (CSC) are targeted at users that don’t want the bulk of a DSLR system, but that don’t want to sacrifice image quality. Due to no mirror box in its construction the 5N, like all CSCs benefits from a smaller build that makes DSLR systems look like giants by comparison. However the Sony E-mount lens fitting means interchangeable lenses are a key part of the design, giving CSCs a feel that’s part DSLR and part compact – hence often being referred to as ‘hybrid’ cameras.
While the camera is small by design, it’s no different in size to its predecessor and, therefore, the likes of the Panasonic Lumix GF3, Nikon 1 J1 and Olympus E-PL3 provide yet smaller alternatives, albeit alternatives with smaller sensor sizes than the Sony’s APS-C fitting.
On the 5N’s rear is a 3in, 921k-dot tilt-angle TruBlack LCD screen that sits snugly to the body. Hands-on control takes on a literal meaning thanks to the new touchscreen. However there’s no viewfinder unless you purchase either the fixed 16mm optical viewfinder or FDA-EV1S electronic OLED viewfinder accessory.
The new sensor and Bionz processor are capable of shooting from ISO 100-25,600 meaning bright or low-light shooting should be a breeze. Hand-held Twilight mode is another setting to elevate the 5N’s low-light prowess that works by snapping multiple frames before combining the various elements for a low-noise image. Auto HDR and Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) also feature for maximising both shadow and highlight exposure in a single shot, while Sweep Panorama – a mode that allows for a panoramic shot to be taken by simply moving the camera in real time – now comes with a 3D option too.
The NEX-5N also comes equipped with the latest movie mode that provides full manual controls and 1080p50 capture that ought to attract a whole other audience to the range.
Sony NEX-5N review – Design
The NEX-5N is a carbon copy of its NEX-5 predecessor, so there’s nothing new in terms of extra function buttons or dials for those users hoping there would be. A common complaint of the original NEX releases was the difficulty in locating and adjusting options from within the cameras’ menu systems. While the 5N’s menu hasn’t changed and still feels somewhat clunky, the left and right of the rear d-pad, central d-pad button and lower function button can all command user-defined controls (this was also made available via firmware updates for existing NEX-5 and NEX-3 users).
The centre d-pad button opens a ‘Custom’ menu where it’s possible to command five main options, selecting from AF/MF Select, Autofocus Mode, Autofocus Area, Face Detection, Smile Shutter, Soft Skin Effect, Quality, ISO, White Balance, Metering, DRO/HDR, Picture Effect, Creative Style, Flash Mode. The on-screen menu is a partial success, but as it’s only possible to pre-define a maximum of five of those listed options and you’ll have to dig through the camera to change settings of anything not selected or to change anything not contained within that list.
The inclusion of a touchscreen panel may sound like an exciting development, but the 5N makes little to no use of it when in any of the manual modes. Its inclusion is almost baffling though iAuto does allow for swiping between photos in playback and AF-point placement on screen. However it’s a long way behind the intuitive and immersive Panasonic Lumix G-series experience.
To activate the NEX-5N’s movie mode there’s a one-touch button that’s just behind the shutter. As it sits on a slanted part of the camera body, however, it’s very easy for a hand to knock and press it, thus activating the movie mode. You won’t always know this has happened and I very quickly used up space and drained the battery after recording a few very long videos of the inside of my camera bag over the course of a few days.
As the Compact System Camera market expands with ventures from Nikon, Pentax, Olympus and Panasonic – all of which have smaller sensor sizes than the Sony – the pressure is on for small, compact-sized CSCs. The NEX-5N is small by design, but the large sensor means larger lenses are needed to provide the correct level of coverage. The 18-55mm kit lens is smaller than a DSLR equivalent, but not by anywhere nearly as much as the Panasonic Lumix 14-42mm or Nikon 10-30mm lenses, for example. If small is among your highest priorities then, considering the full implication of the system, the Sony is among the larger of CSCs available and may be less well suited.
Instead of a standardised hotshoe fitting, Sony has a particular ‘Smart Accessory Terminal’ for fitting its flash unit (which is included in the box). Having the attachable flash is useful, though the fuss of screwing it into place is a nuisance, can takes excess time and, with a guide number of 7, it’s not a very bright offering either.
One useful menu feature that can help define modes is the on-screen Help Guide mode. Novice users will appreciate its presence, though more advanced users are still likely to find the NEX-5N tricky to use at first due to its lack of external controls and dials.
Sony NEX-5N review – Performance
Like the NEX-5 before it, the 5N is great to pick up, pop into iAuto and just shoot with. For those wanting to dig deeper into the menus and make the most of the manual options there are some frustrations, as outlayed on the previous page.
With competitor cameras such as the Olympus PEN and Panasonic Lumix G series upping the ante when it comes to autofocus speeds the Sony NEX-5N is left feeling a little dated by comparison. But only by comparison: put to use the 5N autofocuses in good time, though fast moving subjects may cause it problems. We also found the occasional issue with focus accuracy – the camera proclaiming to have found focus but snapping an out-of-focus frame (and not by a small amount, by enough to immediately see on the rear LCD).
As well as autofocus the 5N offers a decent stable of manual focus options too, including manual focus assist that zooms in on screen and a new focus assist function called ‘Peaking Level’. The latter (and rather oddly named) mode shows the in-focus area on screen as highlights – either red, yellow or white, based on user selection – and gives real-time feedback that’s even aperture-accurate to show focus area in relation to depth of field.
The NEX-5N’s 3in, 921k-dot LCD on the rear employs Sony’s TruBlack technology handles bright sunlight well. Fingerprints can become an issue though, not least due to the touchscreen interface. However we found it rare the touchscreen was put to use as there are only a handful of controls that make use of it in the manual modes. The screen’s tilt-angle ability is limited to vertical (upward or downward angling) that proves useful for a number of shooting scenarios. If you fancy upgrading your NEX-5N then an OLED viewfinder can be attached to the Smart Accessory Terminal, though it’s not then possible to attach a flash at the same time.
Unlike Sony’s Alpha DSLR and SLT models, the NEX-5N doesn’t possess any form of in-camera SteadyShot image stabilisation. Instead you’ll need to find stabilised lenses to reap the benefit of anti-shake. Though this isn’t a major gripe as the inclusion of a sensor-based system would have drawn more power when activated – as it stands the 5N produces over 400 shots per charge.
For speed shooting the 5N does offer a 10fps burst mode ought to be taken with a pinch of salt as it fixes focal distance and exposure from the first frame. Pop the camera into standard continuous shooting and it’ll snap at a far lower rate without continuous autofocus and the buffer fills after four Raw + JPEG shots are snapped, increased to 15 shots for JPEG Fine only before there’s a sign of slow down (tested using a class 10 SD card).
The one biggest frustration with the 5N is its start up time. Even though the camera powers up quickly it can take the screen a second or two to level out the exposure – it’ll often show as white and drift to a ‘normal’ level – and this can be the difference between getting a shot or not (in particular when combined with the clunky menu system).
Overall performance is good, but with other CSC manufacturers really pushing forward the next generation of NEX cameras needs to really give users something astounding to keep up – it can’t rely just on its impressive image quality and large sensor size alone.
Image Quality & Movie Mode
Sony NEX-5N review – Image Quality
Sony NEX-5N: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
There’s no doubt that we were impressed by the original 14-megapixel NEX-5, so how does the 16.1-megapixel NEX-5N compare to its lower-resolution brother?
It’s good news all round. Despite the rise in megapixel count the 5N produces stunning images that just edge ahead of its predecessor.
ISO 100-25,600 retains low noise and clarity throughout much of its range, and adds an extra stop of exposure at both the lowest and highest sensitivities compared to the NEX-5. While the inclusion of ISO 25,600 has little benefit for most shooting, we were more than happy with shots up to ISO 6400.
Image noise really isn’t an issue from ISO 100-800, and while some softness occurs due to processing hereafter colour noise is still absent until the highest ISO setting. Where noise is present it’s grain-like and not undesirable.
Those considering purchasing the Sony may also be looking at the NEX-C3 – a camera that has the very same sensor as the NEX-5N. In our testing there was no discernable difference between the two cameras’ iamge quality so it should be features that drive you to purchase one camera or the other.
Sony NEX-5N: Tone & Exposure
The 5N’s 1200-zone metering system does a good job of exposing images, though without a viewfinder bright sunlight can make exposure assessment on the rear LCD a little tricky at times.
Sony’s D-Range Optimizer (DRO) can also be turned on for adjusting light and dark image areas for a more balanced exposure overall.
Another impressive mode is the Handheld Twilight scene mode that captures a series of images and combines them in camera for optimum exposure in low light with reduced image noise. The camera does a very good job of avoiding ghosting and shots taken in the right low-light conditions will genuinely benefit from this mode.
Sony NEX-5N: Colour & White Balance
Colour proved to be well measured, punchy and bright. Auto White Balance was very consistent throughout varying ISO settings and repeat shots, and there were no overcast scenes to shout about.
Sony NEX-5N: Sharpness & Detail
Sharpness is one area where the Sony NEX series can fall into difficulties. With the large sensor size and small flange back distance images are susceptible to softness at the corners when shooting at wideangle settings. If, for example, you purchase the 16mm pancake lens then anticipate notable corner softness. The 18-55mm that came bundled with the camera in this test is an ample lens that provides crisp, sharp images, in particular at its medium-range, but the level of processing to counter barrel distortion in JPEG images will cause some softening of image detail.
Sony NEX-5N: Raw vs JPEG
Using Adobe Camera Raw v6.5 or above (when available) it’s possible to read the Sony’s Raw files, or bundled software is included in the box for opening and adjusting your images.
The Sony’s Raw files are untouched and show the amount of processing that takes place for JPEG shots: first of all there’s a notable amount of barrel distortion that’s corrected for in camera; secondly colours are far more muted and are obviously pushed into richer and warmer territory for JPEG output.
The Raw files show some green fringes (chromatic aberration) on rare occasions, though this is processed out of the JPEG equivalents. For purple fringes, however, both Raw & JPEG images can suffer towards the edges where subjects are back-lit.
As well as the outlined differences the Raw files are far more detailed yet show considerably more luminance noise. A bit of tweaking in post-production and the results obtainable should be far more customiseable than their JPEG counterparts.
Sony NEX-5N review – Movie/Video Mode
Ignoring the poor one-touch movie button activation button and the 5N has a whole lot going for it on the motion picture side of things. The camera is able to record 1080p at 50fps at a huge 28Mbps data rate, or 50i at lower 24/17Mbps data rates – the latter of which is in keeping with direct Blu-ray output. 25p at 24/17Mbps is also available as well as MP4 output captured at 1440×1080 (12Mbps).
During recording it’s possible to move the AF-point to wherever desired, though the camera may choose to ignore its location if it doesn’t pose a high level of contrast for focusing. Sadly Sony has ignored the touchscreen ability which would have been perfect for single-touch AF-point placement during movie recording for smooth focus transitions.
The NEX-5N’s movie autofocus is very smooth to shift between one subject and another. It does so far more slowly than when shooting stills, but avoids over- and under-focusing because of this.
Movie buffs will also be pleased to see full manual controls that can be adjusted whilst recording – this includes shutter, aperture and ISO settings as well as exposure compensation. In tandem with the overall quality this makes the NEX-5N among the best consumer cameras for HD video capture, plus the APS-C sensor makes shallow depth of field all the more achievable.
Value & Verdict
Sony NEX-5N review – Value
Whereas many Sony products may carry a premium price tag, the NEX-5N, as per the original NEX-5, commands a sub-£600 price tag. That does make it a shade more expensive than much of the competition though, some £40 more than the Nikon J1 and around £100 more than both the Olympus E-PL3 and Panasonic GF3.
When the E-mount system was launched in 2010 the initial three lenses may not have proved enough for more demanding users. At the time of writing there are five current E-mount lenses available, and more promised to be in the works. This development sees the NEX-5N as an attractive prospect, and with the high-end NEX-7 just around the corner it’s a likelihood that equally high-end lenses will be produced over time – the forthcoming 50mm f/1.8 and Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 already have that signed and sealed. However, the Micro Four Thirds camp still has considerably more lenses, including new powered zoom lenses, which may tilt the balance back in its favour of Olympus and Panasonic for certain users.
Sony NEX-5N review – Verdict
Sony’s not flinching against the flurry of new Compact System Cameras hitting the market. With smaller-sensor, smaller designs making up the majority of the competition, the NEX-5N’s impressive image quality can happily boast to have among the best image quality going. To take the already impressive NEX-5 and better it is a job well done. For moving image fanatics, too, the NEX-5N provides more manual movie control and better final quality than any of its competitors in this price bracket. It’s impressive stuff.
However, wideangle settings may cause issues with barrel distortion and longer lenses may make the system a little large overall, plus the menu layout still isn’t as intuitive as it could be and the touchscreen could be better used.
Many will love the 5N’s pick-up-and-shoot ease of use, variety of creative modes and DSLR-like image quality. When the NEX-5N gets things right it really gets them right.